Six years, 314 losses, more than 100 players, three general managers, two playoff series wins and one frantic free-agency night later, the Philadelphia 76ers appear to finally have their core.
Joel Embiid and Al Horford will be under contract through the 2022-23 season after the latter agreed to sign a four-year deal with the Sixers worth up to $109 million, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Tobias Harris agreed to sign a five-year, $180 million deal that keeps him locked up through 2023-24, his father and agent, Torrel Harris, told B/R. And on Tuesday, Wojnarowski reported the Sixers have begun negotiating a five-year, $170 million max extension with Ben Simmons that will keep him under contract through 2024-25.
The timing is fitting. After all, the Sixers just made Simmons perhaps the most pivotal player in the NBA. No other title contender has so much invested in one player's growth.
For the past two years, we've seen Simmons follow a similar script: A dominant regular season is followed by an explosive first-round playoff performance—and then he disappears in the second round. Opposing defenses sag off. The floor shrinks. Against the Toronto Raptors last year, Sixers head coach Brett Brown handed Jimmy Butler the keys and stationed Simmons at the "dunker spot"—right outside the paint, down by the rim—as if he were Tristan Thompson.
Now Butler is gone, and with him goes the Sixers' primary generator of playoff offense.
Brown prefers an egalitarian, ball-swinging attack, and new arrivals Horford and Josh Richardson offer all sorts of options. Richardson is a willing and smooth shooter off the catch (38.5 percent last season on 5.2 attempts per game), with enough off the bounce to punish a scrambling defense. Horford is a savant with a full arsenal of skills. He's a bruising screener and deadly passer. He can roll to the rim, pop behind the arc or conduct the offense from the top of the key.
But the playoffs are a different beast. At some point, the shell games of handoffs and mirror actions stop working. At some point, you need a guy to knife his way into a defense and generate offense, either by finishing at the rim or triggering rotations. Brown himself has acknowledged this.
"When you look up at the clock and it's 94-94 and there's like, three minutes left in the game, the notion of equal opportunity, move, pass—it's there for me," he told reporters before Butler's Sixers debut to explain why he was excited about the trade. "It's put your best players in a situation with the ball."
What will that look like for the Sixers now?
Feeding Embiid on the block is one route, but featuring a post player in today's NBA is sort of like building an NFL offense around a running game. You can do it, but it's bad math. Harris flashed impressive pick-and-roll chops with the Clippers last season, but he's far more adept at attacking a rotating defense and pulling up. The same goes for Richardson. And Horford's lone weakness is that he's occasionally too passive.
That leaves Simmons, which is what made the Sixers' Sunday night shuffling so fascinating.
According to both Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice and Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports, the Sixers did offer Butler a five-year, $190 million max contract, but he turned it down to head to the Heat instead. In other words, they didn't actively choose to elevate Simmons to this role.
However, they did choose not to replace Butler's skill set. In doing so, they made the bet that Simmons could create enough in the half court for the Sixers to survive deep in the playoffs.
Considering past results, it's an interesting bet.
"Not one to get to the NBA Finals," one scout said.
Not everyone agrees, but some numbers back that assertion up.
Simmons ran only 1.8 pick-and-rolls per game in the playoffs last season. Also, his usage rate during the playoffs fell from 24.8 percent to 18.4. The percentage of his passes that turned into assists plummeted as well, an indication of his inability to break down a defense.
Against the Raptors, Sixers lineups featuring Simmons without Butler averaged an ugly 101.4 points per 100 possessions. (During the regular season, the Knicks' offensive rating of 104.0 was the worst in the league.) Meanwhile, lineups featuring Butler without Simmons lit up the Raptors to the tune of 118.9 points per 100 possessions.
Simmons isn't the first dynamic athlete to stumble in the postseason because he can't shoot from distance. He wasn't even the only one to do so last year (see: Antetokounmpo, Giannis). He is, however, the first All-Star point guard to refuse to shoot. In 12 playoff games last season, Simmons didn't take a single shot 15 feet or farther from the basket, per NBA.com.
Antetokounmpo isn't a prolific three-point shooter, but he still launched 3.7 triples per game during the playoffs. Even Rajon Rondo would let the ball fly when given a cushion.
Simmons has not.
That doesn't mean he won't, or that his jumper can't improve. But at some point, his lack of progress and the indifference he's shown about plugging that hole become disconcerting.
Simmons is clearly worthy of a max extension. He's a brilliant passer. He's explosive in transition. He's a lockdown defender capable of guarding all five positions. As one league executive put it: "He's a stud."
He's also one of the primary reasons the Sixers will enter this upcoming season as legitimate championship contenders. Winning a title, though, will require Simmons to take his game to new heights. If he does, the Sixers could be on the verge of something great. He also has the power to undermine everything they've built. He and Sixers will soon be tied together. Their fate—and, given their ceiling, the NBA's—now rests on him.